Chapter One Eastern Dasht-e Lut Desert, Iran
Eleven Kilometers from the Afghanistan Border
The meeting took place on the edge of a high mountain desert, miles from humanity, but near the center of Asia. The terrible mountains of Turkmenistan lie not far to the north. The unmarked wasteland of the Afghanistan border was just to the east. It was a harsh land, foreboding, majestic, and severe, with no well-established borders to belabor the travel of beasts or men. Hidden under the desert were a thousand years worth of battle relics from the past—arrowheads, cankered armor, broken spears, and rusted guns—all of which served as a reminder that the area, though desolate, had been fought over before.
During the last century, the Dasht-e Lut had taken a turn toward relative peace, allowing the local nomadic herdsman to recapture an existence that hadn’t changed for two thousand years. But rumors of war could now be heard again. Bandits, nonuniformed armies, and fugitives from international law could be found in the caves that spiderwebbed through the base of the mountains, and even up into the rocky buttes with their scrub-topped plateaus.
It was a perfect place to hide, for this was territory beyond the edge of civilization. There were no borders in the mountains and no nation-states, no governments or security, no communications or roads. And there certainly was no authority that recognized the West.
The designated rendezvous spot was along a rocky lip of the Garabil Plain, on the outskirts of a forgotten mining town that had been happily deserted soon after the First World War. The broken-down shanties, tiny dwellings that had been scraped together from tar paper and old shipping crates, had been arranged around a small spring that was now a dark, muddy hole. The opening to the mine shaft was somewhere up the side of the hill, lost in the cedars and brush that had grown up over the years. On this night, the moon was clear and round, bright white and surrounded by a thin halo from the ice crystals that had blown off the snowcapped Himalayan peaks to the east. The air was perfectly still, as the earth seemed to take a breath and hold it, waiting and listening, knowing something soon would appear.
The American watched from the mount of his horse, a long-legged Arabian that he loved like a child. He patted her mane gently, softly speaking her name. The Harlot Isabel he called her in tribute to his first wife, a blonde and blued-eyed heartbreaker who had taken most of his money and skipped off with her boss. Behind his legs, the saddlebags bulged with the latest in twenty-first-century technology—a rubber-coated computer, GPS, satellite telephone, encryption encoder, laser designator, and infrared sensor and night-vision display—all of which would have been worthless if it weren’t for the horse, for there was no other way to travel in this part of the world. The terrain was too harsh, the mountains too steep, and the distance between water supplies was simply too far to get around any other way.
The saddle held another secret: Sown into the cotton saddle straps, wrapped under the sweating belly of his horse, was $200,000 in thousand-dollar bills. Over the past year the agent Peter Zembeic had passed out more than three million dollars to various warlords, terrorists, old men, and young girls—everyone and anyone willing to feed his intelligence operation. Entire armies were for sale, but they didn’t come cheap, and flashing cash was one of the things the CIA did very well. Peter sometimes wondered which he needed more, his horse or his cash. The truth was, both were indispensable in this part of the world.
Peter worked for a CIA group known as the “Campers” (though the organization was so secret their code name was changed every six months or so). There were a hundred or so Campers working throughout the Caspian area. With infiltration routes, drop zones, stolen Russian helicopters, intelligence contacts, and assault points, the Campers were a key to the fight against terror. With the ability to hide in plain sight, they get in and get out before anyone can figure out who they were.
The American agent held the reins lightly, then carefully nudged his animal’s side. The Arabian moved forward, her eyes already adjusted to the night, then instinctively stopped at the crest of the hill. Brushing against the needles of a juniper, the horse sought additional cover. She had been trained very well. He owed his life to this mount.
Copyright © 2005 by Chris Stewart